Does Feynman know about his culture?

Paraphrasing Feynman: “the answers proposed like counting angels that can dance on the head of a pin are trivial.”

1. I am not in the least impressed by (in fact, I am disgusted by and contemptuous about) the attitude of the likes of Feynman. Here is one reason why: I too have a criticism of (some) social sciences and (some) aspects of the western philosophy. I too consider that some of these social sciences are not sciences in any sense of the term. But that is because I believe that some of these disciplines endlessly embroider theology and I feel that my research might go someway in setting the situation straight. In other words, as far as I am concerned, the current state of social science is a problem which requires to be addressed seriously. The reason for the seriousness must be obvious: we need to urgently understand the nature of human beings in all its facets, if we have to survive as a species. Making fun of philosophy and social sciences is one thing; to do something about it is entirely different.

2. I am not interested in defending either the social sciences or western philosophy in its current form. But I am concerned about the fact that we seem to know so little about ourselves. However, the mistakes that social sciences and philosophy commit in their quest for knowledge about human beings are extremely valuable lessons for me: if it was not for these mistakes, my own research would not be so productive and I would probably be making the same mistakes myself. I am thankful for every mistake, to narrow down the focus, the British Orientalists committed; I look at those individuals with gratitude and affection. If it was not for this legacy of mistakes, there would have been no research programme to develop. In the true sense of the word, I am standing on the shoulders of giants. That is why I can see farther than they could. As I say, this is not merely my psychological attitude; it is also a heuristic that guides my research programme.

3. About angels on a pin head. Funnily enough, this is a very serious question that involves the Christian understanding of human beings, salvation, heaven and hell, and also the theories of psychological identity. The issue is about angels: are they purely spiritual beings (in that case how could one say they exist because existence seems to require materiality) or do they merely have tiny bodies? If tiny, how tiny is it? Could all the angels in Heaven be accommodated on a pin head?

What has this to do with human beings? Well, the answer is obvious: what happens to human beings till the day of judgement? How could you be punished in Hell without having your body? What exactly is resurrected during God’s reign on earth? How big is hell (does it have a physical location and is it a physical space) that it can provide space to all the sinners? Are heaven and hell mere metaphors or are they also real places? Etc

What has this to do with psychological identity? Again, the answer must be obvious. How can you say that some person is sent to hell or heaven, if it is the case he does not have his body? After all, having a specific body is essential to being the person you are. So, if committing sins sends you to hell, you must go there with your body. And so on.

The Feynmanian contempt for this question becomes all the more grating: his implicit and explicit understanding of himself and other human beings is completely indebted to these kinds of debates and their answers. Not only that. Even his contempt is derived from the same source: the Protestant critiques of medieval scholasticism. The Protestants criticised scholasticism because Catholicism had become a heathen religion to them, and all these ‘human’ contributions merely corrupted the true religion. That Feynman does not know his own culture is excusable; but, is that a reason for us to reproduce Protestant critiques of Catholic Christianity as the last word on the status of human sciences?